Athlete of the Week: William Szymanski

Cherwell Sport discuss the rising popularity of American Football in the UK with the Oxford Lancers quarterback

Cherwell: Let us start with a little bit about yourself: American football isn’t overwhelmingly popular in the United Kingdom. How did you become interested in the sport?  

Will: I first became interested because my older brother started playing the Madden video game, and I wanted to join in as well.  I used to be so nice at that game that I think I went a few years without taking an L. Then, after my GCSEs, my family relocated to America and I got to play 2 years of high school football, which was great fun.

C: What are you currently studying, at what college?

W: I’m doing Classics at Brasenose.

C: How are you enjoying American Football so far? Was it easy to get the hang of the sport?

W: I love it, I don’t think there is a more fun sport to play in an organised capacity.  You can go to a park and play soccer whenever, or go to a gym and run some pickup basketball, but playing 11 on 11 tackle football is an opportunity you don’t get that often.  Although I was pretty experienced coming in, it definitely took me a while to get used to playing quarterback, since I’d never done that before uni.  My first year I wasn’t very good at all – I think I threw about 3 or 4 touchdowns for the whole 7 game season.  Now the game feels a lot slower and I feel a lot more in control.

C: Have you played rugby (league or union) in the past? Would you say the skills were transferable?

W: As a kid I played a lot of rugby union, at school and for a club, but it’s been so long now I’m always pretty terrible when I try to play for college.  The games are similar, and if you’re big and fast and strong you’ll probably be good at both, but there are a lot of skills, like throwing a ball forwards, that are unique to either sport.  A lot of rookies take a while to get used to the pace of the game and the different techniques in football, and it’s pretty cool for an older player like me to watch their growth over the year.

C: For our readers who aren’t familiar with American football, could you tell us a favourite play or skill you think our readers would like to know?

W: I always like to throw deep; that’s the playground play where you just tell your receivers to go long and you throw it as far as you can.  We call our “four verticals” play Mississippi, after an old NFL quarterback called Brett Favre who was from Mississippi and could throw the ball a mile, and I’m always asking coach if we can run that play.  Unfortunately I can’t divulge too much else from the playbook!

C: The Varsity Bowl is coming up soon; could you give us an exclusive preview on the match?

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W: This year we’re hosting it, it should be a great day down at Tilsely Park.  Since BUCS realigned the divisions at the end of last year we didn’t play Cambridge in the regular season, which is why we’re playing so late in the year.  They’ve beaten us the last 3 years and it’s normally a close game, but we feel really good this year – we went 8-1, averaged about 30 points a game on offense, and only conceded about 6 on defense.  We also haven’t lost a home game since early 2014 (our last two varsities were away, due to some odd scheduling).  Cambridge are always tough and rivalry games are always unpredictable, but we’re confident in ourselves.

C: Do you follow any NFL teams, or is there a particular player you idolize? If so, how does that affect the way you play?

W: I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan, so I love my Wolverines.  College football is a big deal in the US, and we have one of the best traditions in the country – the biggest stadium in America, and the most wins of all time.  In terms of the NFL, there’s a Michigan alumnus who plays for New England called Tom Brady, and I’m a reasonably big fan of his.  I chose to wear #12 because of him, and I don’t like my footballs to be too overinflated, but I wouldn’t say I try to emulate his style of play – that’d be blasphemy.  A more realistic goal for me would be to be the right-handed Tim Tebow.

C: What is a basic day of training for you? How do you make sure you are the most prepared you can be for your games?

W: We normally start practice with a classroom session – going through new plays, scouting the other team, watching game film and things like that.  Then after we warm up, we go through special teams (kickoff, kick return etc.) plays, individual position drills, and some group work (i.e. passing drills with wide receivers and defensive backs) before we scrimmage at the end.  My coach will tell you that I don’t watch enough film, but I try to know in advance what the opposing defense likes to do, so we can counter that with plays that we like.  For example, we like to know who their worst pass defenders are, so we can exploit that matchup, and in what situations they like to do certain things.  There’s a lot of work that goes into scouting the other team.

C: How do you work on designing plays with your WRs/TEs/RBs? What are some difficulties with that? Any memorable successes?

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W: We have a playbook that we’ve used for a few years now with our basic formations and plays, but obviously we’re adaptable as well.  If a receiver tells me he likes a certain route against a certain defender, almost always I’ll tell him to do it and we’ll look to take advantage of it.  We have some really smart guys, as you might expect, so normally they’re onto something.  Once we noticed that a deep defender kept coming up to defend our running back, who is really good, when he ran a passing route out of the backfield, so we told another guy to run where that defender started from on the next play, and it was an easy touchdown.  Less successfully, one of my receivers once told me he could get open by running up the field and cutting inwards, so I told him to do it, but I’d forgotten that a different receiver on the other side was doing the exact same thing, so they actually ran straight into each other.  He still caught the ball though

C: Could you tell us a little bit about the team dynamic?

W: I don’t think anyone has ever come to our team and not had a great time.  A great man called Chris Wallace once said that he didn’t want to play football because “hearing a coach scream aint my lifetime dream” but we have great coaches and a great group of guys.  Pub crawls have been known to get messy.

C: Any advice for anyone that wants to give American Football a try?

W: Find us on facebook and come down to practice! We never stop recruiting new players.